The Square Ball Week: Hungry

In 2019-20 articles, Free, Leeds United, Leeds United Match Reports 2019/20 by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Liam Cooper said this week that he was always confident that the single game he played for Scotland U19s in September 2009, after four games for the U17s, wouldn’t be his last for his country.

“I’ve always believed I would get back into the set-up,” he said. “I’m very confident in my ability. I think my game suits international football. In the back of my head I was always confident of stepping up to represent my country.”

And now that’s what he’s doing, hoping Steve Clarke picks him from the squad to play Russia or Belgium. But despite his confidence, he must have wondered if this day would come, if not after leaving Hull City to play in League Two for Chesterfield, then the more his age crept upwards; 28 is late to be making an international debut.

His transfer to Leeds in the meanwhile might have been a boost, but it took a long time for anyone watching Cooper to have the same confidence he has in himself; he must have known that, too.

I’ve grazed through some of my old match reports for mentions of the early Cooper at Leeds, and I was quite impressed by his first two games, thinking he combined, ‘all the defensive solidity we need, with a continental ability to dribble upfield and pass’; I’d seen what it took Marcelo Bielsa years to see — well, it probably took him about two minutes, but you know what I mean — and I’m claiming that. I was already wondering why Giuseppe Bellusci, signed at the same time, was getting in the team ahead of him. After that? Well:

‘That the ball bounced into the net off Cooper’s foot shouldn’t be taken as an indication that he was somehow close to preventing the goal’

‘Cooper was sent off for a second yellow card that was so inarguable it was almost boring. In keeping with the game it wasn’t violent, or malicious, or outrageous, it was just sad.’

‘The best chance of the first half fell to Cooper, who almost turned the day into a full on festival of last season by testing his keeper’s reflexes with a close range flick’

‘Cooper seemed to be mulling over the offside rule from throw-ins so let the ball go, and Kermorgant got to it, lashing it into the top of the goal’

‘I haven’t yet seen a photo of Cooper re-angling his body at great height to meet Wigan’s aimless cross and chest it past Silvestri, but I expect it will be indistinguishable from a freeze-frame of Lee Chapman circa 1990-93; we should treasure these links with the past’

‘Cooper pulled Howson down on the edge of the six-yard box in one of those bollock-brained moments that remind you he was playing for Chesterfield in pre-season’

‘Where the depths were really sunk was at the restart. The ball was played to Cooper, who looked up, and to begin Leeds’ fightback, lofted it into the front row of the East Stand’

And so on. It’s bizarre to read that stuff now, knowing that Cooper, somehow, survived. He was never helped by the players around him, like Bellusci, Jason Pearce, Marco Silvestri, and especially not Scott Wootton, who kept headbutting Cooper out of games; I found one reference, filled with foreboding, to a fledging partnership between Liam Cooper and Dario Del Fabro. He wasn’t helped by his managers, of whom there were too many, too few of them good enough; or by Massimo Cellino, who wanted him, but nearly didn’t buy him at all, putting a statement on United’s website announcing the end of his interest, before watching Pearce and Wootton start the season and deciding money was no object to signing Cooper and Bellusci after all.

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Getting through all that, with only Gaetano Berardi still by his side, can be put down — in both their cases — to their humanity as much as their ability. The concept of honesty gets thrown around in football clichés without much thought behind its meaning, until you meet Berardi, who simultaneously refused to join his teammates in their Sick Six fiasco while refusing to condemn them for their misguided actions, staying loyal to the club and his friends; or Cooper, who through all the mistakes and the criticism never denied the fans their opinions, never fought back against them with subtweets or spreadsheets, never let anybody doubt that he was doing the best he could. The fans only wished he would play better; while the squad, as it shed the Cellino era and improved in quality that ought to have left Cooper behind with Bellusci and Bianchi, elected him their captain.

Cooper was soon kicking a Cardiff player off the pitch and getting an idiotic red card for it, proving that his consistency was still catching up to his maturity. But when he and Berardi, our two longest serving and longest suffering players, could have been portrayed as the villains of the Derby play-off semi-final — and while not escaping the criticism they deserved — something was understood by our familiarity with them over the years: they would hurt like we hurt, and would work harder than we as fans are capable to fix things.

Cooper has fixed it so thoroughly he’s in the Scotland squad. One of the summer’s big questions, about the defence post-Pontus Jansson, has been answered in the first weeks of the season by the PFA-award winning form of young loanee Ben White. But it’s Liam Cooper who has truly replaced Jansson, and is playing better than he did.

White has speed, skill and understanding on his side, making him the perfect player to cover while Cooper does what Jansson used to do, marking and dominating centre-forwards, beating them to the ball in the air and on the ground. Jansson’s style of leadership isn’t missed, because the captain is no longer contradicted in the defence’s chain of command, and the showmanship has gone too; that turn of attention after a strong challenge, judging the effect and choosing either a laughing or fist-pumping pose. In its place, from Cooper, is just the challenge itself. Opposition teams simply can’t get into Leeds United’s penalty area now — well, unless it’s from a corner, but that’s another story.

This story is about the self-confidence that, even through the hard times and the humbling mistakes when even Championship football looked beyond him, has sustained Liam Cooper until he was the right age, 28 now, for the right manager to help match his game to his belief and return him to the Scottish fold. (The national team, not the breed of cat.)

In that way Cooper resembles a number of the players Howard Wilkinson took a grip of in the early nineties, not letting go until they were promoted, and champions. Chris Fairclough, in particular, was a centre-half whose certain England career had escaped him after injuries and inconsistency spoiled a big transfer to Tottenham, and that same sense of coming to Leeds to start a second act was shared among Wilko’s recruits. Mel Sterland wanted another England cap, Gordon Strachan and Lee Chapman wanted to prove they weren’t finished at the top level; after promotion John Lukic came to show that he was better than his replacement at Arsenal, David Seaman, and Chris Whyte to ascend again after his mid-1980s fall into American indoor soccer.

Leeds have quietly acquired a core group of players of similar seniority, with similar ambitions that they’re competing against the clock to fulfil. Cooper has his Scotland place, but Berardi came here to win promotion to the Premier League; it might have been wishful thinking by Cellino, but since Berardi learned it was the deepest wish of the fans, he’s made it his aim as he turns 31. Barry Douglas won promotion with Wolves but was sent back down, and now 30, he wants the Premier League games he earned; Kiko Casilla has decided to get his bum off Real Madrid’s bench and play to win, aged almost 33; Ezgjan Alioski and Adam Forshaw are 27, Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling are 28, Mateusz Klich is 29. Pablo Hernandez, the granddaddy of them all, is 34.

It’s hard to imagine where they all might go next after Leeds; that Jansson’s fragile knees have their 29th birthday this season might have been a factor in him not going from Elland Road to the Premier League, while the best chance players like Alioski or Ayling have of getting there, with a medal along the way, is by getting there with Leeds.

‘Hungry’ is a cliché usually applied to young players like Eddie Nketiah or Jamie Shackleton, the Rod Wallace and Gary Speed of Bielsa’s team. But they have their whole careers ahead of them and can afford to relax. The motivating hunger is that of players like Liam Cooper, who haven’t yet got from their careers what they set out for, but are determined to have it before they’re done. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)